Best Picture Catchup: Marty, In The Heat Of The Night, Terms of Endearment, The Last Emperor

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997. After four weeks, I’ve added 16 movies to my list, making my new count 60 out of 70 movies.

I think I’ve added a new favorite movie this week and I discovered that 1967 might have been the best year for movies ever. Enjoy!

Marty (1955)

I understand why I didn’t see “Marty” before I did. Ernest Borgnine is not an actor with star power among today’s audiences. The movie poster looks corny (he’s smoking a cigarette and has a smile like Groucho Marx). And it’s not a movie that most people talk about or reference. It’s not like other older movies like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane” where the imprint on cultural consciousness has been made.
But what “Marty” lacks in fame it makes up for in emotion and true acting. It’s a sad but sweet story of a lonely man played by Borgnine in a role that won him the Oscar. He’s in his mid thirties and he lives with his mother still. His brothers and sisters have gotten married but he hasn’t met the right girl and he starts to wonder if he’ll ever meet her. His mom keeps asking, “When are you going to get married?” to the point where he responds in angry tears that he’s an ugly man and no woman wants to date him. While watching this, my heart sank. We’re so used to seeing confident leading men in old movies, so to see someone with their insecurities laid bare like that took me by surprise. Borgnine’s character goes out with his friends one night and he meets a shy plain jane named Clara. She’s a girl who doesn’t consider herself attractive (and Marty’s friends don’t think so either) but he’s smitten with her. She’s nice and smart and sensitive and she believes in him when he talks about his dream to buy his boss’s butcher shop. Marty is on cloud nine and you think they’re going to race toward a happy ending until Marty’s traditional Italian mother starts to worry about her son leaving her and she begins to guilt him and try to break up his relationship. His friends — jealous that he wasn’t hanging out with them — start to trash the girl too. Although, his friends are pretty terrible to him and only seem to use him as a wingman to occupy the female friends of their dates so they can try to get some action themselves.
In the end, Marty stands up for himself and it reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time, another Best Picture winner five years later: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” In that story, Jack Lemmon plays a lonely bachelor who keeps getting kicked around in life and is unlucky in love. Finally, he stands up for himself and takes control of his life.
I don’t want to get too personal, but I’m going to share a little about my own life and why I really connected to both “Marty” and “The Apartment.”
I’m now 36 years old and I’ll have been married for three years when Labor Day weekend rolls around. My wife and I dated for a year before getting married, so I was in my early 30s when I found the right girl. Now, that doesn’t seem too late in life, but I will say dating in your late twenties is not as fun as dating in your early twenties. You start to get frustrated at the bad dates. You start to get down on yourself. You see all of your friends get married and have kids and you wonder if it’s just luck or if you’re doing something wrong. In the movie, when Marty kept being asked by his family or friends when he was going to get married, any single person in their 30s knows what that feels like. It gets annoying.

Here’s the dialogue between Marty and his mother that just broke my heart and I think won Borgnine the Oscar.

“Marty: Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I-I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more. I just called up a girl this afternoon, and I got a real brush-off, boy! I figured I was past the point of being hurt, but that hurt. Some stupid woman who I didn’t even want to call up. She gave me the brush. No, Ma, I don’t wanna go to Stardust Ballroom because all that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like I was a-a-a bug. I got feelings, you know. I-I had enough pain. No thanks, Ma!
Mrs. Pilletti: You’re gonna die without a son.
Marty: So I’ll die without a son.
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty, put on the blue suit, huh?
Marty: Blue suit, gray suit, I’m just a fat, little man. A fat ugly man.
Mrs. Pilletti: You not ugly.
Marty: I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly!
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty –
Marty: Ma, leave me alone. Ma, whaddaya want from me? Whaddaya want from me? I’m miserable enough as it is. All right, so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom. I’ll put on a blue suit, and I’ll go. And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache.”

If you wondered who wrote this great script it’s Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright and screenwriter who is responsible for one of the best movie scripts ever: “Network.” This movie started off as a made for TV movie but was redid for theaters with a new cast.
The female lead is an actress you might not have seen before. Betsy Blair was married to famed dancer/actor Gene Kelly but her acting career was stalled when she was blacklisted for holding left wing views and attempting to join the Communist Party. She was only cast in “Marty” — for which she earned an Oscar nomination — because her husband threatened the studio that he wouldn’t appear in the film “It’s Always Fair Weather.” I wonder about all of the great acting performances we missed out on due to the Hollywood Blacklist.
It’s hard to say if “Marty” deserved to win Best Picture that year because, if I’m being honest, I have not seen any of the other films I noticed were nominated. The other Best Picture nominees were “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Mister Roberts,” “Picnic” and “The Rose Tattoo.” Honestly, I had not even heard of these movies before. Perusing the movies that came out that year, I suppose “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” or “Blackboard Jungle” could have been contenders. My favorite movie that came out in 1955 was “To Catch a Thief,” a terrific Alfred Hitchock movie. But my guess is “Marty” was the best choice.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This is a great movie, but let’s get this out of the way: I’m not sure it should have won Best Picture that year. “In the Heat of the Night” is a tense crime thriller with great performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier but the 40th Academy Awards might go down as one of the best years in movie history. Here were the other nominees for Best Picture that year: “The Graduate,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Doctor Dolittle.” Disregard that last nomination for a minute (I’m not a big musical person) and that’s a list of some of the best movies ever made. In addition, there were some other awesome movies that did not get Best Picture nominations that year: “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Barefoot in the Park.” So to say that “In the Heat of the Night” isn’t as good as some of those other movies is no knock against it. That’s a killer year for movies.
If you aren’t familiar with the flick, “In the Heat of the Night” is the story of a black homicide detective who helps a slightly prejudiced small town Southern police officer solve a mysterious murder. It has one of the most famous lines in movie history when Poitier exclaims, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” and that actually became the name for a sequel they made. The crime itself is pretty much by the numbers and the mystery unravels like an episode of “Columbo.” It feels like a TV procedural at times which is why it isn’t surprising that it did become a TV series in the 1980s. But what makes this movie excel is the acting of Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor that year and Poitier, surprisingly, was not nominated for this movie or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that year. Kind of a snub, but at least he had already become the first black male actor to win an Oscar back in 1963 with “Lilies of the Field.” If you’re going to make a list of the best actors of all time, Poitier makes that list. If you make a list of best black actors ever, he’s at the very top. No competition. Maybe Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Mahersala Ali and Viola Davis make the top five, but Poitier is at the very top.
My favorite scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” might be toward the end when the two men are drinking scotch and talking to each other honestly and candidly about their lives. They say so much with just their facial expressions and pauses between words. It elevates the entire preceding movies.
Interesting cameo in this move: Scott Wilson, who you might recognize as a old man Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead” TV series (he passed away two years ago in real life), plays a man who was initially suspected of the murder. It’s weird to see him as a young man but the voice is unmistakable.

The Last Emperor (1987)

Right before I watched “The Last Emperor” for the first time, I watched another one of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s movies for the first time as well: “Last Tango in Paris.” It’s a controversial art film in mostly French starring Marlon Brando as a widower who has a purely carnal relationship with a woman he barely knows. It’s sexual and disturbing at times (I wouldn’t want to hear the words, “Pass the butter” after this movie) but Brando’s acting and Bertolucci’s direction turned it into a masterpiece of sorts. More than a decade later, the Italian director won an Oscar for “The Last Emperor” an epic historic biopic that still feels artistic and intimate even with its grand scale.
It’s the story of the last emperor of China based on his book and after reading the Wikipedia entry about him he’s certainly worth a movie. He became emperor at an insanely young age and was isolated from the world. He breast fed until he was eight years old and they had to force his wet nurse out of the Forbidden City. He adored Western culture and his tutor (played by Peter O’Toole in the movie) opens his eyes to the rest of the world. He talks about running away and going to Oxford. Eventually, China becomes a republic and the emperor is no more. Despite never wanting to be emperor originally, he begins to miss the power and he gets into bed with Japan who manipulates him and installs him as a puppet emperor of Manchuria. Eventually he serves 10 years in a prison camp for war crimes and the movie jumps back and forth a bit.
It’s a beautifully shot movie with great acting and impressive sets. It really was shot in the Forbidden City in China and it was the first Western movie to do so. The first 90 minutes is filled with gorgeous shots of the palace and the movie begins to drag when it leaves the city. I’m amazed at the access that the Chinese government gave this filmmaker, especially when you consider this is not a propaganda piece for the Chinese. It shares the good and the bad about Chinese history. It doesn’t smear Mao or the emperor but it shares some truths. Some things are cleaned up though. The emperor was cruel and sadistic as a youth, forcing the eunuchs in his palace to be flogged for his amusement. The movie touches on that when he asks a eunuch to drink ink for his entertainment but it’s downplayed quite a bit. The producer recalled the approval process for the screenplay with the Chinese government: “It was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came.”
It’s an amazing achievement for film and I think it was deserving of the Best Picture. The other nominees were “Fatal Attraction,” “Broadcast News,” “Hope & Glory” and “Moonstruck.” Given those choices, they made the right decision. Although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, my choice for that year would have been Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I wasn’t a big fan of this one. I like Shirley MacLaine a lot. Like I said before, I love the movie “The Apartment” and she’s the female lead in that one and she’s settled nicely into a sassy old lady role. She was great in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and her appearance on “Downton Abbey.” Jack Nicholson might be in my top 5 favorite actors of all time and he oozes charisma in this movie. Both of them won Oscars deservedly for this movie and John Lithgow earns a nomination too (I’ve been a fan of his for years as well). I think my problem is with Debra Winger. She’s a good actress, but I just don’t like her. Apparently her directors and co-stars feel the same way and she’s a difficult actress to work with which is why despite two Oscar nominations in the 1980s her career sputtered to a stop. Her character isn’t extremely likable and she doesn’t help the cause much. What’s interesting is the amazing chemistry between her and MacLaine despite the fact that they hated each other in real life (MacLaine seemed to love the fact that she took the Best Actress Oscar from Winger who was also nominated).
There’s some good things about this movie. The scenes between MacLaine and Nicholson are classic and you almost wish there were more of them in the movie. The ending is a cliche tear jerker but it’s effective.
I think my problem with this movie is that it’s just an adequately made romantic comedy with a cancer twist at the end (I’m sorry to spoil it for anyone). It just feels like the Oscar bait moments are shoved in at the end and it doesn’t earn its pathos.
I also got annoyed at how repetitive the score was. The same music played over and over in every scene I felt like I fell asleep with the DVD menu on and the music was on a loop.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the film work of James L. Brooks who won Best Director for this one. He is a TV pioneer, having created the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Lou Grant” and “Taxi” and being a founding producer on “The Simpsons.” But when it comes to films he can’t seem to break from the romantic comedies. I genuinely like “As Good as it Gets” but I’m in the minority it seems when it comes to not caring for “Spanglish.”
I didn’t hate “Terms of Endearment” but it’s not one of my favorite movies. Should it have won Best Picture? I might have picked “The Right Stuff” that year.

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